ALBANY, Ga. (WALB) - One year ago, cases of the coronavirus began to emerge in the Southwest Georgia Public Health District (SWHD).
Looking back, Dr. Charles Ruis with the Southwest Public Health District said these cases were just the beginning of the pandemic in our area, and the start of our very own “Ground Zero.”
“It was the second week of March, early in the second week of March, we realized that someone had been an inpatient at Phoebe, who had had COVID. That was a huge shock. But that was just the beginning of many shockwaves that would come to us,” said Ruis.
Ruis said that he remembers February 2020, and the events that would unfold soon after.
“Last year in February, we were preparing for something that we thought would probably show up in a larger city before Albany. And I remember that Chairman (Chris) Cohilas called a meeting. There were several members of the community that were brought together. And that became the beginning of the task force. We rapidly considered the best ways that we could use to educate the public, and one of those was to have press conferences,” said Ruis.
During the conferences, Dougherty County and Albany community leaders would address the main concerns surrounding the virus.
“Early on, one of our challenges was in testing for COVID. Early on, there were very few testing supplies. And so the laboratories were overwhelmed. And so in many cases, we were waiting six or seven days to get the test results. For contact tracing to be effective, we need to know as soon as possible, who has been infected,” said Ruis.
Jacqueline Jenkins is an epidemiologist. She’s responsible for contact tracing and case investigations through SWHD.
“Very early on, the CDC and health experts kind of gave us information on how infectious the virus was. And one of the things that we know is that it spreads faster when you’re in close contact. And that’s when we had the guidance on wearing masks, keeping six feet apart. And so every phone call we make, every interview, everything that we do has been to get that information to the public, of how you stay safe to decrease COVID transmission in our community,” said Jenkins.
And cases did start to decrease by late May and early June, but it didn’t last long. By late November, the cases were on the rise, and so were the deaths.
“It was a very rough winter. If you look back now at the statistics, they clearly show that for Southwest Georgia, we had more cases in December than we had in either spring or summer. But at the same time, we started doing the vaccines. We started vaccinating the fourth week in December,” said Ruis. “Where we are right now, we don’t know how many people are immune. Many people are immune because they have had the disease. Tens of millions of Americans have been vaccinated. Most of them are immune right now. But again, we don’t know how long that immunity will last — it could be six months, six years or a lifetime.”
Said Ruis: “Looking forward, our goal is going to be to administer these vaccines to people as quickly as we can. If we do indeed gain control of the virus, one of the things that’s going to be important is surveillance around the nation, so that we will know if the virus starts popping up in certain areas.”
“What we know, and I think a lot of people know if you’ve been kind of keeping up is, now we have some variants of the virus in our communities. Right now, Georgia has not seen that many, and in Southwest Georgia, we haven’t had any. Fortunately, the vaccines that we have seem to be working for the variants. So, that’s a change that we’re seeing is these variants that we’re keeping a close watch on in Georgia,” said Jenkins.
And despite the hardships that 2020 brought, Ruis said he believes the area is on the up-and-up for 2021 — especially now that access to the vaccine is more available.
“There’s reason to think that a year from now, life will be much more normal than it is now. The CDC will be providing guidance on when we can relax on social distancing and wearing a mask. But it needs to be done with advancing knowledge and experience. And we need to continue to follow the CDC’s advice in that regard,” said Ruis.
If you’d like to schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine through the Southwest Health District, call (229) 352-6567.